Queen Elizabeth I

© National Portrait Gallery, London

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Queen Elizabeth I

by Nicholas Hilliard
watercolour on vellum, 1572
2 in. x 1 7/8 in. (51 mm x 48 mm) oval
Purchased, 1860
Primary Collection
NPG 108


Detail of Elizabeth I's face.
Detail of carefully painted monogram.
Thin strokes of orange, painted directly on t…
The undershirt and sleeves are covered by a l…
The ribbon for the pendant may have faded fro…
The petals of the rose may have faded from re…

Sitterback to top

  • Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603), Reigned 1558-1603. Sitter associated with 138 portraits.

Artistback to top

  • Nicholas Hilliard (circa 1547-1619), Miniature painter. Artist or producer associated with 34 portraits.

This portraitback to top

This remarkable picture is the earliest known miniature of the queen, painted when she was 38 years old. It may be the portrait that the artist, Hilliard, describes painting in his treatise, The Arte of Limning, in which he relates recommending to the queen an 'open light' for miniature painting, with no shadow, for which he says she chose to sit in 'the open alley of a goodly garden, where no tree was near'. The reverse of the playing card (which is no longer visible) is documented as using the figure of a queen.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • Bolland, Charlotte, Tudor & Jacobean Portraits, 2018, p. 144 Read entry

    By 1572, the year in which this miniature was painted, Elizabeth I had survived the first major threat to her rule: the Northern Earls had risen in rebellion in an attempt to place Mary, Queen of Scots on the throne in 1569, and Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk, had been imprisoned and executed for his involvement in the 1571 Ridolfi plot. This portrait may have been commissioned in relation to the proposed marriage of the queen to seventeen-year-old Hercule-François, duc d'Alençon; the courtship between the queen and the French duke continued for a number of years, and she nicknamed him her frog. This is one of Hilliard's earliest miniatures and shows Elizabeth at the age of thirty-eight. The white roses pinned to her left shoulder are suggestive of summer, and this may be the portrait that Hilliard describes painting in his treatise 'The Arte of Limning', when the queen sat for her portrait in 'the open alley of a goodly garden, where no tree was near, nor any shadow at all'. Hilliard had trained as a goldsmith and became the first notable English artist to work in miniature. Elizabeth appointed him her official limner, and his service to the monarch continued after the accession of James I in 1603.

  • Bolland, Charlotte; Cooper, Tarnya, The Real Tudors: Kings and Queens Rediscovered, 2014 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 12th September 2014 to 1st March 2015), p. 142
  • Clare Gittings, The National Portrait Gallery Book of Elizabeth I, 2006, p. 18
  • Cooper, John, Great Britons: The Great Debate, 2002, p. 32 Read entry

    Considered to be jewels, rather than paintings, miniatures were made with thickened watercolour. The vellum (calfskin) ground was often stuck to an old playing card to stiffen it. Hilliard was the Elizabethan master of the art.

  • Cooper, Tarnya, Elizabeth I & Her People, 2013 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 10 October 2013 - 5 January 2014), p. 76
  • Cooper, Tarnya; Fraser, Antonia (foreword), A Guide to Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 2012, p. 12
  • Edited by Lucy Peltz & Louise Stewart, Love Stories: Art, Passion & Tragedy, 2020, p. 143
  • MacLeod, Catharine; Rab, MacGibbon; Button, Victoria; Coombs, Katherine; Derbyshire, Alan, Elizabethan Treasures: Miniatures from Hilliard and Oliver, 2019 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 21 February - 19 May 2019), p. 42
  • Piper, David, The English Face, 1992, p. 51
  • Pointon, Marcia, Hanging the head : portraiture and social formation in eighteenth-¿century England, 1993, p. 239 number 282
  • Rogers, Malcolm, Master Drawings from the National Portrait Gallery, 1993 (accompanying the exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery from 5 August to 23 October 1994), p. 23
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery: An Illustrated Guide, 2000, p. 44
  • Saumarez Smith, Charles, The National Portrait Gallery, 1997, p. 44 Read entry

    The earliest and most winsome of the images of Queen Elizabeth in the NPG's collection shows her looking pale and intense, festooned with an extraordinary array of jewellery, pearls, a black enamelled choker round her neck and a white rose pinned to her left-hand shoulder roll. It is assumed that this was the miniature Hilliard referred to in A Treatise Concerning the Arte of Limning, when he described how 'when first I came in her highness presence to drawe, whoe after showing me howe shee notied great difference of shadowing in the works' stipulated that she should be painted 'in the open ally of a goodly garden, where no tree was neere, nor anye shadowe at all'. This has produced a smoothness of polished skin as if Elizabeth was indeed sitting in bright sunlight when this work was done.

  • Saywell, David; Simon, Jacob, Complete Illustrated Catalogue, 2004, p. 200
  • Strong, Roy, Tudor and Jacobean Portraits, 1969, p. 101
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 50 Read entry

    This is the earliest known miniature of Elizabeth I, the daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 following the death of her half-sister, the Roman Catholic queen Mary I. It was painted by the talented English artist Nicholas Hilliard (c.1547–1619), whom Elizabeth would appoint her official limner, or miniaturist.

    This subtle and exceptionally detailed portrait was executed when Elizabeth was thirty-eight years old and the artist about twenty-five. It may be the sitting referred to in Hilliard’s treatise The Arte of Limning (c.1600), which presumably took place in the garden of one of the royal palaces. Hilliard relates a discussion with the Queen about draughtsmanship and the importance of line and the absence of shadow in painting. The consequence of this, he relates, was that the Queen chose to place herself in the ‘open alley of a goodly garden, where no tree was near, or any shadow at all’. The pattern for Elizabeth’s face, as created here by Hilliard, was later followed in two large-scale oil paintings that are known today as the ‘Phoenix’ and ‘Pelican’ portraits (National Portrait Gallery, London, and Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, respectively).

  • Walker, Richard, Miniatures: 300 Years of the English Miniature, 1998, p. 16

Linked displays and exhibitionsback to top

Subject/Themeback to top

Events of 1572back to top

Current affairs

Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk is executed for his part in the papacy-backed Ridolfi Plot to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I.
The French prince Francis, Duke of Anjou becomes a potential candidate as Elizabeth I's husband as Parliament makes repeated calls for an heir.
Sir Francis Drake plunders Spanish treasure in the West Indies and returns to Plymouth with his spoils the following year.

Art and science

Miniature of Queen Elizabeth I painted by Nicholas Hilliard.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Matthew Parker publishes De Antiquitate Britannicae Ecclesiae (Ecclesiastical Antiquities of Britain), which charts the history of Christianity in Britain from the apocryphal arrival of Joseph of Arimathea.
Birth of the poet and playwright Ben Jonson.
Birth of the metaphysical poet and churchman John Donne.


St Bartholomew's Day Massacre of French Protestants (known as Huguenots) takes place in Paris. Under the orders of the queen mother Catherine de Medici and Henry, Duke of Guise, the Huguenot leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny and thousands of his supporters are killed.
Dutch Protestant privateers (known as Sea Beggars) capture the port of Brill, which becomes the first stronghold of the Dutch revolt against Spainish rule.

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